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“What makes a pair of Mary Janes so covetable?” is the question I ask myself on the tenth day I’ve opened the same browser window to ogle the ones I’m still making sure I want. There are few shoes that so gracefully walk the line between the fashion sense of Bemelmans’ Madeline and that of Alexa Chung, and are simultaneously wearable in several settings.
The design gained popularity in the early 20th-century after Richard F. Outcault, a pioneer of the modern comic strip, created two characters who sported the shoe, one of whom was named Mary Jane after his wife and daughter. Popular culture revitalized the Mary Jane (thank you Blair Waldorf and Cher Horowitz) and gave it dimensions beyond the pious innocence of the private school uniform (though some still like to don the style as a callback to simpler times when all you had to do was go to class and be careful not to scuff your shoes).
We’ve curated a list of some of the best Mary Janes at several price points, so whether your intentions are sentimental or a desire to be in vogue, this collection will spare you the toil of scouring the Internet to find the pair that’s right for you. We can’t, however, promise you won’t get stuck deciding between two, or three, or four styles.
The Starter Shoe: Shop-Pêche, $92
The Noma design from Shop-Pêche is responsible for my capitulation into the world of Mary Janes. Consider them your gateway pair if the traditional “bar” shoe is a little too school-uniform for your taste. The Noma strap hugs your ankle (instead of the top of your foot) and the toe box looks cartoonishly, but stylishly, like the bottom half of a potato (yes, specifically the bottom half), covering only the toes and leaving the rest of the foot exposed. I love a shoe that lets your foot breathe and isn’t a flip-flop. Made from vegan leather and available in black and white with a 1.5-inch heel, the Nomas can be worn comfortably all day long, though I do recommend breaking them in with a pair of thin socks or tights for the first few wears.
The Splurge: Carel, $495
If you run a quick Google Image search of Alexa Chung, you’ll find that she has quite an affinity for the Mary Janes by Carel. Launched in Paris in 1952 by a husband and wife team, Carel’s early mission, was and still is “Preventing women from walking sadly.” The first time I slipped into the Kina Mary Janes, I felt what Cinderella must have felt when she and her life-saving glass slipper finally found each other.
The first time I slipped into the Kina Mary Janes, I felt what Cinderella must have felt when she and her life-saving glass slipper finally found each other.
After a puzzling but very worthwhile journey to find your perfect size (there are tips throughout the website to accomplish this and the brand’s customer service is very quick to respond), you’ll find that Carel’s iconic Kina Mary Janes provide enough support throughout the sole to get you through the most cobbly Parisian street in one piece. If you’re looking for leather alternatives, the brand launched Carel Cares in 2020, a line of sustainable and environmentally-friendly products made with materials like AppleSkin™, an Italian vegan leather made with reused waste from the fruit juice industry, and Piñatex® which, as you probably guessed, is made from cellulose fibers extracted from pineapple leaves. Who knew you could have your fruit and wear it, too?
Another Parisian Brand: Jonak Paris, $175
I’m not afraid to admit I’m a Francophile, which is why I have to include another Parisian brand on this list. Jonak was founded in 1964 (also by a husband-and-wife team) and sells shoes manufactured in Italy, Spain, and, most notably, São João da Madeira, a northern Portuguese city known for its high quality shoe production. If you want a pair of Mary Janes with a little lift, your search can end with Jonak’s platform, leather, double-strap design. The toe box on these is my favorite part—square and rounded at the corners—and their simple elegance makes them wearable any hour of the day.
The One You Can Buy Two Of: Newbella, $69
For a more affordable pair of triple-strap, patent shoes made from vegan leather, Newbella’s aptly named 15-minute Commuting Mary Janes are the perfect way to emulate Alexa Chung’s style without having to first achieve the same level of fame and fortune. The heel on these is just over 1.5 inches, though it deceivingly looks a little taller, and if you live in a walking city, these are true to their name in that they’re comfortable enough to walk for hours on end without having to sacrifice an inch of style. Newbella offers too many more Mary Jane designs to mention here, so you’re bound to find the look that suits you best.
The One That’ll Last Forever: Camper, $130
The best parts of the single-strap Katie Mary Janes from Camper, besides the fact that they’ll instantly become a family heirloom you’ll be able to pass down to your great-great-great grandchildren, are the comfortable OrthoLite® insole and the “extraordinary grip” (as touted on the product page) of the thermoplastic polyurethane outsole, which is known for being long-lasting and resistant to splitting. Camper uses full-grain leather for this style, created from a process that preserves the material’s oil-absorbing properties and makes it the most durable of its kind. These are truly worth the investment and don’t even require a break-in period.
The Old-School One: Reformation, $248
Reformation’s Abalonia Chunky Mary Jane is the most classic interpretation on this list, barely straying from the shoe that gained popularity amongst school children in the early 20th-century, and is now one of the most nostalgic fashion staples you can wear on your feet. The Abalonia is definitely chunky with a slightly raised sole, a bigger buckle, and a moc stitch around the toe box that leads up to the ankle with a T-bar design. Feel free to style these however you like, but know they’re begging to be worn with a pair of plain, white, mid-calf to knee-high socks.
If this list has only made your search for the perfect Mary Janes even more confusing (because you can’t not get every pair on it), know you’re not alone. What we can guarantee is that at least one of these styles will soon become part of your daily uniform and help you pass any fashion test with flying colors.